When film buffs talk about completed films that the public will never see, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Don Plum or the recent John Malkovich movie 100 Years, the one that’s always name-dropped as the Holy Grail of lost movies is the infamous The Day the Clown Cried.
In 1972, slapstick comedy star Jerry Lewis signed on to direct and star in The Day the Clown Cried, a drama about a circus performer accidentally sent to Auschwitz who is forced by the Nazis to use his entertaining skills to lure Jewish children into the camp’s gas chambers.
Many problems afflicted the production and once the film was completed, Lewis was so taken aback by the poor taste and quality of the film, he swore it would never see the light of day. Nearly 50 years later, it finally has.
A 31-minute cut of the movie has surfaced online, cobbled together from various sources. The rough compilation is comprised of scraped footage from German documentary Der Clown, spotty subtitles, a smattering of title cards, and the uncut ending of the picture.
While it’s far from the 90-minute running time of the full movie, it’s more of the picture than anyone’s been able to see before now, as most of what is known about The Day the Clown Cried is second-hand, exaggeration, or rumour.
Only a handful of people in the world have ever seen the picture, as Lewis keeps his private copy locked in a vault at his house, but The Simpsons actor Harry Shearer happened to be as Lewis’ house in 1979 when Lewis showed it to a select group of friends.
“[The Day the Clown Cried] is a perfect object,” Shearer told Spy magazine in 1992. “[It] is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”
“The closest I can come to describing the effect,” Shearer continued, “is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz…It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying so hard in the wrong way to convey their strongly held feeling.”
Curiously enough, despite its notoriety and legacy of poor taste, The Day the Clown Cried will eventually become available to watch in full: Last August, it was revealed that the Library of Congress had acquired a copy of the movie, on the condition it wasn’t made available to the U.S. public until June 2024.
For now, the 30-minute cut uploaded to YouTube yesterday remains the most anyone’s seen of the picture and probably the best glimpse you’ll get for eight years of one of the rarest movies ever made — assuming it’s still up by the time you read this.